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Deadline nears for school on probation

The Baltimore Sun

Leaders of an embattled Hanover charter school will begin work this week to "cure" five deficiencies Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell has highlighted -- even as they expressed doubt that they could meet the tight deadline.

Chesapeake Science Point Charter School faces an extended probation or possible closure if it doesn't fix several areas by Feb. 23, including:

Hiring a licensed or certified special education teacher.

Submitting details of a lease and design of a new space the school wants to rent for the next school year.

Submitting a three-year budget that shows how the school plans to pay for growing enrollment and new programs it will need to support a new grade each year through 2011.

Spear Lancaster, board vice president, told Maxwell and school board members Wednesday that the continuing probation and threat of closure has stalled negotiations with the landlord of a 47,000-square-foot space sought by the school.

The school, which serves 218 students in grades six through nine, has also had difficulty finding a highly qualified special education teacher because of regional shortages in that field, he said.

"We can't hire what doesn't exist," Lancaster told the board. "We're doing everything we can to find them. We put ads out."

But the schools chief blasted Lancaster and others at the school for taking too long.

"From my perspective, trying is not an option," said Maxwell, adding he intentionally used the word "cure" in his recommendation that asked the board to lengthen the school's probation until May. The board unanimously OK'd the measure.

"'Cure' is a very important word ... it's not by chance. 'Cure' means you will fix the [problems by Feb. 23]," Maxwell said, leaning forward.

It was a night of sharp exchanges where parents told the board they believed their school had been the target of a double standard and unfair scrutiny for the past 2 1/2 years.

John Dove, a member of the school's Citizen Advisory Committee, said, "More and more parents feel that CSP is being looked at and judged differently from other schools in Anne Arundel County."

"The perception is that anything wrong at the school will be exaggerated, whereas the successes and achievements will be minimized," he said. "There are much greater and more serious problems at other schools in the county, including violence, poor academics, and yet the absence of these problems at CSP are ignored."

The school has wrestled with critical audits since it opened in September 2005 that have found inadequate records of special education students' progress, weak finances and personnel problems.

Despite the problems, however, parents told school board members that Chesapeake Science Point has given their children an education they would not have received in traditional public schools.

"We have a 100 percent pass rate in algebra. You have high schools out there that have 30 percent pass rates, and these are middle schoolers taking algebra, not high schoolers," said Robert Fader, father of a seventh-grader.

School board member Victor E. Bernson, who has been an ardent supporter of the school, said some of the issues aren't as minor as the parents believe.

"Even a stalwart supporter like me can't turn a blind eye to what happens to these children next year," Bernson said. "They talk about wanting to move to a new space, but where's the lease, the design specifications, the budget showing us how much it's going to cost to bring the space up to compliance as a school? We're seven months away, and we don't know, and that's a serious problem."

Board members also said the parents' problems shouldn't be with the school board -- but with the state, which has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the nation. The parents are looking for a level of autonomy that the law doesn't allow, board member Eugene Peterson said.

"The real tension is not with us, but with Martin O'Malley, Mike Miller, Mike Busch," he said. "They ought to go to them and tell them, 'Fix this law.'"

Teachers and staff have tried to insulate students from the school's fight for survival. But it has been tough, particularly in recent weeks, as the school's director, Fatih Kandil, and International Baccalaureate coordinator Ali Tuna have been temporarily pulled from the school pending the outcomes of county Department of Social Services investigations.

On a recent school day, things appeared normal on the surface. An eighth-grade earth science class reviewed for a midterm exam using a Jeopardy!-style game. A few doors down, sixth-graders worked three years ahead, tackling slope-intercept formulas in algebra. And around the corner, seventh-graders in an English class discussed racism, whether they've encountered it and how it made them feel.

The school's teacher specialist, Ilker Gurbuz, who is helping to fill in for Kandil, said there was a short spike in discipline problems after the reassignments. Usually well-behaved students acted out in class, he said, and others became emotional and missed school.

"The foundation of the school is still strong, Gurbuz said. "We are just going through some tough times but it will get better."


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